Why does one place feel like home and another place, while beautiful or lovely in many ways, does not?
How is it that I don’t care much for Tuscany, when it is so well-renowned for its beauty?
To put it simply (very simply), places become embedded in our psyche and woven into our heart when our experiences there are significant and good. This is an imprint.
Typically, these imprints happen when we are young. When we are discovering our environment in the context of discovering ourselves.
The streets, alleys, parks, and special places we played as kids, away from our mother’s watchful eyes are some of the landscapes that hold fond memories. Or where we went to camp or to college – completely away from home, from family, all alone, for the first time. The places where we experienced a new independence, a new way of being. These experiences are inherently significant. But for the landscape to burrow into our heart and psyche, the experience must also be good.
Let me tell you how these imprints show up in my life. If you think about yours, maybe you can relate and see some similarities.
I grew up in Chicago but spent my summers on my godmother’s farm in Michigan. Michigan was where I played with other kids. Outside. In the fields. In the barn. Picking berries, picking corn, and even picking snakes (up by their tails). It’s where we chased chickens, watched cows, and petted my cousins’ horse. Where we ate meals around a big kitchen table with a loving, wrinkled, strong, steady, and firm matriarch, who was watching over us, always interested, always ready to respond with a jolly jiggling full-body laugh.
This was radically different from my experience in Chicago. Until the age of 10, I lived on the south side. Bridgeport. What was then called “the little white ghetto.” A parking lot was our playground. To venture outside of a few blocks was dangerous. My siblings were older and had their own friends. My limited attempts to socialize were, well, not very successful.
When I was 10, my parents divorced and I moved to the northwest side of the city with my mother and brother. Here were cleaner streets lined with single-family bungalows, grass lawns, and garages accessed from alleys. This area was quiet and safe.
For my birthday, my parents gave me a red three-speed Schwinn customized with drop handlebars, (which were THE thing in the 80’s). I loved that bike. That bike meant freedom. For three years, I rode that bike everywhere. Now I had friends, from school and in the neighborhood. But those years were also tough and challenging, for various reasons, not the least of which were things going on with my parents.
Returning to Michigan in the summers was an escape. It felt like going home. I longed to be at Grama’s. To hear the crickets. To smell the hay. To sleep in a creaky bed with a lumpy mattress. To feel the morning dew in the air and inhale the sweetness of the grass. To hear Grama’s laugh and the crunch of gravel under the tires of an unexpected guest. To see my extended family and enjoy the endless fields of crops and barns and trees that covered the flat landscape. To go shopping in town and have people know me, or know Grama, who was right beside me.
I left Chicago and moved to San Francisco when I was 18, only two months after graduating from high school.
In San Francisco, I owned my first car. A hand-me-down Toyota Tercel manual shift. Yes, a 5-speed stick on those famous steep hills! I have to admit, I was always proud of that. That car, like my red Schwinn, was freedom. I would drive up to Twin Peaks and look down on the city during the day and out into the bay. At night, I’d cruise along the coast, windows down and music up loud. I knew the winding streets of the city better than my own hands. And better than the realtors I met many years later.
During my six years in California (the first time I lived there, that is, between the ages of 18 and 24), I lived in San Francisco (in eight different apartments in eight different neighborhoods), in Petaluma (over the Golden Gate Bridge), and in San Diego. I camped along the coast, in the Yosemite mountains, in the forests, and at the Russian River. This varied landscape of mountains, water, and trees became imprinted on me. My time there was hugely significant and very, very, good. I was discovering who I was. I was creating a new way of being.
Years later, I moved to Hailey – the Wood River Valley in Blaine County, Idaho. Hailey was great because it is a small town with a weekly newspaper (reminding me of my hometown in Michigan) but it took me a long time to love the landscape. There are mountains and trees and the Big Wood River, but essentially, it’s an elevated desert, largely covered in sagebrush. Not exactly the lush green of the other places I had called home. Yet when my sister came to visit, she remarked, “It looks just like Michigan, but with mountains.”
Within three years, I bought a house in Picabo, a town of 65 residents and 6 streets, surrounded by fields of hay and barley. The beautiful Silver Creek, a world-famous trout fishing stream, is just steps away. This is a landscape dotted with cows and sheep, barns, hay bales, and hills, and an endless mountain range in two directions. It combined all the elements that had been imprinted on me from earlier times in Michigan and California. This was home. I loved this place. I still do. Yet after 14 years of living there, it was time to leave.
For two months, I travelled through the southern states visiting towns and looking for the one that “fit.” I visited some beautiful places. I fell in love with Kentucky – all except for Lexington, that is, which was the only place where I might have had a full-time teaching gig. In the end, I landed in Northeast Oklahoma. First Muskogee and then Tulsa. This area feels very much like the places of my youth, the places that made a mark on me. The landscape in Tulsa is lush, green, and humid. There are rivers, plenty of parks, music and art, diversity and good food. As cities go, it has a small-town feel. I’ve lived here for 3 years now and am extremely content.
And then, in March of 2020, I traveled to Italy. This was planned as a 6-week holiday, but… due to Covid-19, I stayed for four months. For eleven weeks, I was lucky to be quarantined in Balestrate, Sicily. My apartment looked out at the sea. As in, the sea was directly in front of me – there was nothing blocking my view. I felt so fortunate for this lodging, this view, and the safety it afforded me. Yet, after several weeks, I desperately wanted to see trees. To see green spaces and living things. The sea was gorgeous, yes, but the sea is not my imprint.
So, when restrictions lifted and I could move about more freely, I drove into the heart of the island – into the country. On small winding roads through the fields and the mountains, into the small towns sitting on hilltops. Here my spirit was soothed and comforted. I relaxed.
It’s not surprising that Sicily feels like home to me. It has everything I love, everything I came to love, from earlier times. Imprints. Significant and good. Sicily offered me shelter in the midst of danger. It welcomed me. People were kind. And I made friends. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, my time there was really good. Even with so much uncertainty, I was happy.
Before returning to the States, I visited Tuscany. Ah, Tuscany! Famous for its beauty. Alas, the area didn’t speak to me. Tuscany has too many people, too many cars, and too much chaos. I prefer to be around less people, less traffic, less buildings.Certainly I can appreciate what it offers, its treasures and its history, but the beauty … meh. It feels somehow generic. I know that seems funny! And you may disagree. But this only emphasizes that what feels like home to one may not feel like home to another. It all comes back to imprints.
As I said earlier, places become imprinted on us when our experiences there are significant and good.
Everything I just told you about Tuscany is genuinely my reaction to this famed part of Italy. And, it’s also worth noting that my time there was filled with anxiety. All those extra people made me nervous – I felt at greater risk for catching Covid-19. My rental car was not working properly. I had problems finding my Airbnbs. Problems finding parking. And finally, it was there that I made the excruciating decision to return to the States. So, while I did have some truly enjoyable moments, the situation wasn’t optimal. It didn’t capture my heart and create an imprint.
Whereas, Sicily, now, is imprinted on me. Sicily has a little bit of all the places that have been dear to me. The farmland, hills, and cows. The small towns and familiar faces. The simple delights. Even the sea feels good to me. While I don’t want to look out at it daily, I like knowing it’s there near me. I’ve always loved living near water, I just don’t need to live right next to it. Imprints from happy times in the places of my youth are reflected in the Sicilian landscape and people. And then, to further reinforce this, I spent fifteen amazing weeks there during a monumental moment in history. In Sicily, I am home.
Now I live in Tulsa. And, at the moment, I’m visiting Idaho. And then there is Chicago where my family lives and Michigan, where I spent my summers as a kid. I have many homes. Perhaps you do too. Through our memories and experiences, our homes stay with us, even when we leave. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always looking for similarities in the new places we visit, the new places we live. Familiar details, small or big, are what make us feel at home.
Not all places feel like a fit. But those that do, I guarantee, reflect an imprint from earlier times, most likely from your youth, when you were happy.